The Importance of a Balanced Digestive Fire
One of the most vital components to maintaining your health and wellness is to be a good digester. Making sure your digestive system is in fine working order is one of the most fundamental ways we keep our whole being working most efficiently.
The truth of the matter is, eating good food is not enough. All those amazing recipes out there online brimming with fresh, colorful vibrant food look so amazing. But often they are not considering the strength of one’s digestive fire and how well one will be able to process all those combinations of foods. For instance, many people can’t digest a raw salad well, but it’s touted as a healthy meal for all simply because it’s loaded with fresh vegetables. This is simply not a fact as raw food is very difficult to digest particularly for those with a cold digestion.
The bottom line is that the best food on the planet can’t nourish you if you don’t have the digestive fire to transform or assimilate what you are putting into your body. After all, if you’re taking such care to make your meals with only the best ingredients, you really want to be able to utilize all those nutrients. In addition, anything else you take in, including supplements, vitamins, and medications, will not be processed and utilized efficiently by the body when digestive fire is out of balance.
Our digestive fire is the mechanism by which we transform anything into energy.
Digest it, or you'll store it as toxins
The expression in Ayurveda is 'we become what we digest'- not just what we eat - but what we digest. We become what we process, and what we can’t process, our bodies store as toxins which we call ama. Ama is unprocessed food that turns into a substance that is similar to tar ~ a sludgy, sticky, thick, and messy substance that deposits on our digestive organs, and can eventually move into other parts of our body over time. It smothers agni (our digestive fire) and it blocks your physical and energetic channels, disturbing your whole system.
It’s akin to waste build-up in the drains of your house. The more ama that deposits in our bodies, the more our digestive system weakens, bogs down and becomes imbalanced. Over time, this will lead to, at first, uncomfortable symptoms of poor digestion (gas, bloating, burping, nausea, fatigue, constipation, etc.) that will ultimately lead to disorder and then disease if not corrected.
With time, ama gets harder and harder to remove from the body. This is the main purpose as to why we do seasonal cleanses in Ayurveda. Cleanses help clean out and dislodge ama, giving you an opportunity to lighten up and restart your digestive fire, and eventually, prevent disease.
In addition, the result of poor digestion and ama can dull and slow the mind and negatively affect
emotions, further complicating the ability to reach well-being. If your mind is not clear and stable, it’s harder to make the best decisions, including making sound food choices, thus perpetuating the cycle.
For more on this, see my article on Moods and Digestive Health.
So this idea of keeping the digestive fire in good working order is of critical importance because it literally allows you to digest - digest food, digest thoughts, digest emotions - which generates energy that then transforms to create your future self.
You become what you digest.
Digestive Fire in Ayurveda
A healthy digestive fire - which we call agni, is absolutely fundamental. It is the fire in your belly that cooks, breaks down, and assimilates your food to be processed as energy, as nourishment to your tissues, and to proliferate new cells. Fire is chemical energy which is heat. All transformative processes are governed by agni.
Agni is the fire element manifesting in the body. It governs the metabolic processes regulating the transformation of food into energy and is responsible for body temperature, the processes of digestion, absorption and assimilation of food, sensory perception, and processing that perception into knowledge.
How to Keep this Fire burning bright
How we balance our digestive fire is truly going to be different for everyone - as we are all unique and therefore our needs are unique as well, but here are some general guidelines that will boost one’s digestive fire for those that need some more heat.
Scrape your tongue - this helps remove the toxins that have been deposited on your tongue from the night, and it gives your internal organs a gentle massage, stimulating them.
Start the day with a cup of warm/hot water - could add fresh-squeezed lemon. Do this before any other drink or food - this will get the digestive juices flowing & opens up the cell walls to accept nutrients
Eat ONLY when you’re hungry - even if it’s a typical time for a meal - if you’re appetite is not there, neither is your digestive fire - check in with yourself to distinguish between true hunger in your belly or if it’s an emotional need or habit
Eat a thin slice of fresh ginger pickle before meals. This will help kick up digestion. Fresh ginger, a pinch of Himalayan pink salt, a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime, and a dab of honey, take it 15-30 min before you eat. Note that this might not serve Pitta if there is an excess of fire - i.e. heartburn, diarrhea, etc.
Eat your biggest meal at lunch - your digestive fire is the strongest here - the Sun is highest, the temperature is the warmest ~ digestion is most efficient here
Dinner should be the lightest meal by around 6 pm or before sunset. In the evening, cortisol levels drop, and melatonin rises preparing us for sleep - digestion slows. Having a light, easy-to-digest meal allows the body to do its nightly detox much better.
Giving your body at least 12 hours to fast overnight is ideal. So 12 hours between the last meal of the day and the following morning’s breakfast. Not practicing this one particular habit can have very deleterious effects on the digestive fire over time.
Cook with digestive spices - dried or fresh ginger, fennel, black pepper, cayenne, mint, Himalayan rock salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, dill, turmeric, cumin, and coriander. These spices kick up digestive fire AND they pull ama out of the system. See my guidebook for which of these spices work best for your dosha.
Avoid snacking between meals - our previous meal needs to be fully digested before we take in more food because we can’t digest 2 different meals in 2 different phases - it overloads the system and creates toxins - ama. Allow at least 3-5 hours between meals. As an added benefit, you will also spend less time worrying about feeding yourself. Eat adequately at mealtimes and you won’t have to worry about snacks. Grazing is NOT helpful for great digestion!
Eat only until 3-quarters full. Never stuff yourself. We can only take in so much at one time - anything in excess of that is stored as toxins and fat.
Don’t ever drink iced water with meals and avoid drinking large quantities of liquid with your meals. This will dilute the stomach acids and cool the fire. We need a strong fire to digest food well.
Drink more digestive teas between meals like ginger, cumin, coriander, and fennel (CCF tea). I have guidance on this as well in my dosha guidebook
When using grains, nuts, seeds, lentils, and rice, it’s best to rinse them to clean and soak them for 30 minutes to soften before cooking, like adzuki, lentils, mung beans, and peas. Harder beans need to be soaked overnight to make them more digestible. Cook them with digestive spices like ginger, black pepper, cardamom, cumin, and fennel. These spices also help prevent gas and bloating and make them more digestible.
Get rid of white table salt. It’s full of chemicals and leeches nutrition out of your bones. It contains an anti-caking agent that causes cancer and neurological diseases. Use only real, unprocessed salts like sea salt, Celtic salt, black salt & Himalayan rock salt.
Consider taking Triphala powder before bed. This helps clean the colon and scrapes the intestines of ama and restores proper peristaltic action in the bowels. See someone like myself, an Ayurvedic Practitioner, for dosage.
Do a simple Kitchari Cleanse - see a qualified Ayurvedic practitioner for guidance on this! This can be done for one meal, for all meals for 2-7 days, seasonally, or anytime you need to reset your digestion.
Avoid these always: things that say “low fat”, “no fat”, or “sugar-free” - the natural fats and sugars have most often been replaced with harmful chemicals.
Eliminate white sugar, all chemically treated, genetically modified, hormone-pumped, chemically fed, chemically preserved or processed, irradiated foods, artificial sweeteners and colorants, food fried in old oils, trans fats, and fat substitutes like margarine and shortening. All of these things create ama.
Go organic as much as you possibly can. Pesticides and GMO foods dampen digestion and also have been shown to cause nervous system imbalances, neurological deficits, cancer, hormonal disruption, severe and moderate mental imbalances, ADHD, and endocrine system disorders.
For a couple of more remedies to boost digestive fire and keep that tummy happy, see my additional articles below.
Is Your Digestive Fire too Firey?
For some, the digestive fire can actually be too hot. These are folks with an abundance of Pitta dosha in their constitution. The digestive fire can actually run so hot and fast, that the body does not have the time to efficiently process and absorb nutrients from our food.
What does an overheated digestive fire look like?
Physically you could see red skin and rashes of all sorts, inflammation anywhere, excess oil on the skin, acne, red eyes, acid stomach, heartburn, very loose stools, and excess perspiration. In climates that have more humidity, you can see swelling.
Mentally it shows up as irritability, anger, aggression, competitiveness, jealousy, overdoing, and overthinking. These things lead to burnout.
These constitutions will need more cooling diet and lifestyle practices. For guidance on this, check out my related article here which discusses Ayurveda guidelines during the Summer season when the chance of the digestive system burning too bright is highest.